Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mile 4: Bobbi, Sue & Kathrine

Quote of the Day: Bobbi Gibb made big headlines and big photos in the Boston papers. “Hub Bride First Gal to Run Marathon” and “Blond Wife, 23, Runs Marathon.” Yet she could not join the other runners for their traditional bowl of beef stew in the Prudential cafeteria: Women were not allowed. Photographers followed her home, and one of the shots showed her at home later on race day in the kitchen, making fudge with a friend. -- Tom Derderian, from his wonderful book: BOSTON Marathon, The History of the World’s Premier Running Event.

Following is an excerpt from the fourth chapter of my upcoming book, Safari Into the Black & White Jungle. Please send your comments and suggestions to the author via e-mail:

Chess and running have been constant threads throughout my life. They haven’t always represented the same level of importance but they’ve always been part of my personality and part of my character. Sometimes these threads have run parallel and sometimes they have become entangled, often braided in my mind like a cord.

So it’s not surprising that I used metaphors about running in my Strategic Vision presentation to the US Chess Federation delegates in 2002. While discussing chess and Alzheimer’s disease, I talked about the prevalent myth heard in my youth that running a marathon would make a person immune from heart disease. After running Guru Jim Fixx dropped dead of a heart attack, the pendulum swung the other way as doomsayers started to warn that running would lead to all kinds of medical maladies. Eventually, however, most competent health professionals came to understand that people have inherent risk factors that cannot be overcome in all cases by diet and exercise. Nowadays, it is generally understood that vigorous physical exercise on a regular basis reduces the risk of coronary artery disease and other illnesses such as diabetes and stroke, but it does not make anyone immune.

Recently, there have been studies that demonstrate that playing chess and engaging in other forms of mental gymnastics may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It is my belief that one day it will be generally understood that vigorous mental exercise on a regular basis reduces the risk of dementia and related mental health problems. Promoting this notion in the public eye, I urged, will give a boost to the popularity of the game of chess.

As with the sport of running before the mid-1960s, chess is a male dominated activity. Less than 5% of adult tournament chess players in the U.S. are female. Almost as many girls as boys up to about the fourth grade play chess in school, but most young girls give it up for other activities soon thereafter. Chess helps develop cognitive skills, teaches kids to plan ahead, helps developing minds identify consequences related to their actions, and improves self esteem and social skills. It is equally as beneficial for girls and boys.

There were virtually no women runners when I was growing up because of various prejudices. But after Joan Benoit won the 1984 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles the popularity of running among women took off. It took off so much, in fact, that many of the local 5K and 10K road races around the country now routinely have more female entrants than male.

Of course, like most other greats, Joan Benoit stood on the shoulders of others. Perhaps she wouldn’t have been running herself had it not been for those who tried it before her. The longest women’s track and field event in the Olympics was only 200 meters until 1960. After that it was the 800, then the 1500 and later the 10,000. Finally in 1984 the Women’s Olympic marathon was introduced.

Many casual runners will probably tell you that the first female marathon runner was Kathrine Switzer. She became famous when race director Jock Semple tried to pull her off the course during the 1967 Boston Marathon. Kathrine was an athlete, not just an agitator. Once women were allowed to run ‘officially’ in 1972, Switzer placed in the top 5 four times, including 1975 when she ran her personal best time of 2:51:37 for second place. Only a world record performance that year by West German superstar Liane Winter kept her from the ultimate satisfaction of having race officials place a laurel wreath on her head.

Kathrine Switzer was inspired, according to her own words, by someone who did it before her: Roberta Gibb. A friend had run the 1966 Boston Marathon in 3 hours and 45 minutes. He was a 2-mile runner on the local college track team and related the story of how a woman named Roberta Gibb had finished more than a mile ahead of him in the race. Amazed, Kathy Switzer ran the Boston Marathon the very next year.

Most serious runners, especially those who have read Tom Derderian’s book about the Boston Marathon, know about Roberta Gibb. Only a handful of them have ever heard about Sue Morse. Not to take anything away from Kathy Switzer, as I think her accomplishments were terrific and great for the sport, but Roberta Gibb and Sue Morse ran a marathon before her.

Tom Derderian’s personal recollection of the 1966 Boston Marathon was coaxing his father to pick me up after the morning track meet in order to transport me to the starting line in Hopkinton. It was a gift for which I will remain eternally grateful since my own father had no interest. It was too inconvenient for him. Tom eventually ran 2:19:04 for an 18th place finish in the 1975 Boston Marathon, the year of Kathy Switzer’s best race.

Tom’s description of the 1966 race is a masterpiece. In it, he presented a well-researched biography of Roberta Gibb, who wore an official number and ran as “R. Gibb”. She finished in 3 hours, 26 minutes and 40 seconds for an unofficial placing of 126th. Bobbi, as she was known to her friends, completed the Boston Marathon again in 1967 in 3:27:17, but was pretty much ignored by the media in favor of Kathrine Switzer who finished an hour later. As mentioned above, Switzer gained national attention when race official Jock Semple tried to rip her number off her shirt as he shouted, “Get the hell out of my race and give me that number.”

Then there is the story of Sue Morse, which I witnessed with my own eyes. The Philadelphia Marathon was held on December 18, 1966, my third full length marathon in 8 days. My goal was to see if had recovered well enough from the previous weekend to break three hours.

The Philadelphia Marathon course was the most scenic of any that I ran. It started at the last boat house on ‘boat house row’ along the Schuylkill River, went around the Museum of Art (the building with the steps featured in the first Rocky movie), and back along the river through Fairmount Park for about four miles to a turnaround point near the Philadelphia Zoo. Then it returned to the starting line for a total of 8 ¾ miles. This was done three times.Frank Niro, running the first of three 26.2 mile marathons in eight days, Brockton, MA, December 1966

One of the enjoyable aspects of the race was that you could see the other runners going the opposite way after each loop. It enabled the runners to participate and be spectators at the same time. Such an event would be impractical today because of the large fields, but with less than 30 entrants it was probably easier for the officials to keep track of everyone on a three lap course.

Amby Burfoot, a friend from Connecticut, won the race. He was in second place early and closed fast to take over the lead on the last lap. His winning time was 2:24:43. I remember our paths crossing as I was heading out and he was coming back. “You look good. Keep it up,” he said. On the other end of the field was Sue Morse, a local high school senior who was running her first marathon. I had spoken to her at the starting line where she told me she just wanted to finish before dark and thought she could do better than four hours. Each time our paths intersected I tried to give her a smile and some encouragement.

I finished the race in 3:01:22, disappointed that it took me longer than three hours. Later, the course was re-measured and found to be 462 yards too long. I was pleased when I saw the race report by H. Browning Ross in the Long Distance Log noting the discrepancy.

After the race I took a shower in the boat house, changed into my street clothes and headed for the finish line to cheer for Sue Morse. On the way out I passed the race officials coming into the building. “Hey, aren’t you going to wait for Sue Morse?” I asked. “She’s not finished yet and has a good chance to break four hours. Somebody should be there to record her time.”

“She’s not an official runner,” I was told. “If you want her time recorded then you get it. Here...”, one of the officials blurted as he transferred his stopwatch that was hanging from a string around his neck to mine. Sue Morse was met at the finish by a crowd of one. “Three hours, 58 minutes and 49 seconds,” I told her. “Nice job. Here, put my sweatshirt on and stay warm.” Back inside, I recorded Sue’s time on the bottom of the official list of finishers and returned the watch.

At the awards ceremony, the room was filled with newspaper reporters, politicians and other dignitaries. I was awarded a trophy for finishing in 12th place and a medal for being a member of the 3rd place team. Then they called me to the podium for another award. “Youngest finisher; congratulations” I was told. “There must be some mistake,” I said into the microphone. “The youngest finisher was Sue Morse. This award belongs to her, not me.”

Sue Morse came forward and I gave her HER prize. The newspapers took note. The article in the Sunday paper said, “The marathon had an unofficial entry in Sue Morse, Olney High School student who represented Philadelphia Hawks TC and finished 27th. She became the first women ever to run this distance in the area.”

Within a few days of returning home I received the following letter from the Mid Atlantic Association of the Amateur Athletic Union:

“The Chairman of the Long Distance Committee of the Mid Atlantic AAU has called to our attention your recent violation of AAU rules that resulted when you publicly presented your award for finishing the MAAAU championship race in Philadelphia, 12/18.66, to a non-AAU member.

Under these circumstances your action calls for punitive measures. You are hereby notified of the suspension of your privileges, effective immediately, to participate in any and all MAAAU events for a period of 90 days from the date of this letter. During this period, no travel permits to run in any sanctioned races in the mid-Atlantic region will be issued under your name and AAU membership number.”

Professionally, Jock Semple was a physiotherapist and a masseuse. He worked on Causeway Street in Boston next to the old Boston Garden. His office was quaint and doubled as the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) headquarters. Every wall was decorated with trophies, plaques, medals and old photographs.

I liked to run across town to see Jock at least once each week. He was entertaining, funny, knowledgeable about running, and most of all, opinionated. Originally from Scotland, Jock Semple had an unmistakable brogue that imprinted every word he spoke. I enjoyed listening to him tell stories and rant about whatever happened to be on his mind. It was not unusual to bump into a Boston Bruins player or one of the B.A.A. elite runners in his office for a whirlpool or a rubdown. I often stopped to pick up a sandwich for him since he frequently was busy with clients. It pleased him for two reasons: he didn’t have to leave the office, and he saved a buck and a quarter. On most occasions, I was a welcome guest.

After receiving the letter from the AAU, I visited him to tell him what had happened. “Well you shouldn’t have done it,” he said. Then with his trademark accent he added, “Girrrrls can’t run marathons.” “Sure they can, Jock, I witnessed it myself.” He walked into the next room shaking his head. Maybe I should have tried harder to convince him, but it was pretty difficult to budge Jock Semple once he had made up his mind on any subject. Four months later, his attitude earned him headlines.